Monday, November 17, 2014

On This Day (1914): “The Memphis Blues” charted for the first time

The Memphis Blues

Charles Adams Prince’s Orchestra

Writer(s): W.C. Handy (music), George A. Norton (words) (see lyrics here)

Recorded: July 24, 1914

Released: October 1914

First Charted: November 7, 1914

Peak: 4 PM, 17 GA (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): --

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, -- video, -- streaming

Awards (W.C. Handy):

Click on award for more details.

Awards (Prince’s Orchestra):

Awards (Victor Military Band):

About the Song:

W.C. Handy’s ‘The Memphis Blues” was one of the first blues songs ever published and “the first to make a significant impact on the music industry.” SS Handy originally wrote the piece as “Mr. Crump” as a means of campaigining for Edward Crump in his bid for mayor of Memphis in 1909. He became the head of one of the most dominant political machines in the nation, ruling Memphis until he died in 1954. SS

The song may have derived from “Mama Don’t Allow No Easy Talking Here” by Willie Perry and Susie Johnson, a Memphis-based husband-and-wife black vaudeville comedy team. SS Their publishing company threatened to prosecute anyone using their songs, a warning that may have been directed at Handy. However, no action was taken even though Johnson insisted years later that the song was stolen from her. SS

Handy published an instrumental version of the song on September 28, 1912. He self-published it again with lyrics by the end of the year. He eventually sold the rights for $50 to New York music publisher TY2 Thomas C. Bennett and George A. Norton gave it new lyrics. George “Honey Boy” Evans, a white minstrel entertainer, then started performing the song around the country and it eventually became a hit. SS Because he’d sold the rights, Handy wouldn’t see any roylaties from the song until the copyright expierned 28 years later and reverted back to him. Handy has since been christened with the moniker “The Father of the Blues.” SS

The chart version by Charles Adams Prince’s Orchestra reached #4 in 1914. He was born in San Francisco in 1869 and traveled with circuses and minstrel shows for several years before beginning a recording career and becoming the musical director of Columbia Records from the turn of the century through the early 1920s. PM He had 82 chart entries from 1905 to 1923, including three chart toppers.

Music historian Steve Sullivan says Prince’s rendition is “a very straightforward instrumental arrangement in the carefully structured style of the time, without any improvisation, but with the luxury of a fairly extended playing time (close to four minutes), it conveys the song’s beauty and distinctiveness.” SS

Prince made his recording nine days after the first recorded version by the Victor Military Band (#9 PM, 1914), but Prince’s version showed up on the charts first and has been deemed “the first hit recording of a blues song.” PM Other chart versions followed by Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan (#8 PM, 1915), Ted Lewis (#9 PM, 1927), and Harry James (#15 PM, 1944). “The Memphis Blues” has also been featured in the movie musicals Belle of the Nineties (1934) and The Birth of the Blues (1941).


First posted 9/6/2023.

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